20th Century Physics

The 20th century was to be the age of atomic physics, relativity and quantum mechanics. Again, Irish scientists played key roles, notably Ernest Walton who split the atom in 1932, with his collaborator John Cockroft at Cambridge University. Their work confirmed Einstein's famous equation - e=mc^2 - and ushered in the era of nuclear power. The two men shared the 1951 Nobel prize for their work. Walton is still the only Irish person to win a Nobel science prize.

Where Walton and Cockroft proved that Einstein was right, another Irish physicist proved Einstein was wrong. John Bell was a brilliant Belfast theoretician who worked at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, specialising in the weird world of quantum mechanics. Einstein had refused to accept some aspects of quantum mechanics, but Bell's work proved that quantum mechanics was real - and that Einstein was wrong. Bell had been nominated for a Nobel prize but died suddenly of a stroke in 1990.

One of the most significant developments in Irish physics in the 20th century was when then Taoiseach and former mathematics teacher Eamon de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1940.

Modelled on the Princeton Institute where Albert Einstein was professor, it reflected de Valera's vision of Ireland with its schools of theoretical physics and Celtic studies, and later cosmic physics. There was considerable political opposition, but de Valera's Dail majority ensured the Bill was passed. Significantly, the Austrian Nobel physicist Erwin Schrodinger was invited to head the school of theoretical physics. Among other emigre scholars who found sanctuary in Ireland during World War II was noted German physicist Walter Heitler, who joined Schrodinger in 1941.

Schrodinger spent 17 years in Ireland, during which time he gave lectures that were later published as a book, What Is Life?. This famously inspired many scientists to study biology after the war, notably James Watson and Francis Crick who went on to discover DNA's double helix.

Today, physics research in Ireland continues at the universities, institutes of technology and DIAS, and in the industrial research labs run by multinational companies in Ireland. Meanwhile, the Beijing Olympics swimming dome is based on a structure discovered by two TCD physicists Prof Denis Weaire and Dr Robert Phelan who study foams - one of the more unusual contributions made by Irish scientists.

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